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Arts
01/22/06

By JACK RIGHTMYER, Staff Writer


Interview with Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes (1996), has now written three books all memoirs which have gone on to be number one bestsellers. This isn’t bad for an author who didn’t begin to write seriously until his mid-sixties.

His most recent book “Teacher Man” (258 pages, $26, Scribner) is an account of his thirty-year career as an English teacher in the New York City public school system.

“I think my books have been successful because I have a knack for storytelling,” he said in a recent phone call from his home in New York. “I learned how to tell a story from my thirty years of standing in front of high school students. As a teacher I knew when I was reaching my audience, connecting with them, and I knew when I wasn’t. I think the same thing happens in my writing.”

He admits that having read millions of words written by his students has taught him to cut out any ornamentation in his own writing. “I always told my students write simply, don’t be phony, and hold your audience,” said McCourt. “That’s all I try to do.”

On Tuesday, he will read from his new book at 8 pm at Page Hall on the University at Albany’s downtown campus. Earlier that day, he will present an informal seminar at 4:15 in the Ballroom of the uptown university’s Campus Center.

After writing his second book Tis (1999), McCourt wanted to write a story about his teaching career. “This book was like walking up Calvary,” he said. “Angela’s Ashes was clear cut, a story about growing up in Ireland. I had been telling people those stories for years.”

He acknowledged that his second book was a coming to America book. “Just another immigrant story,” he said, “but this one I didn’t know where to begin.”

At one time he was writing it as a novel. “But reality kept creeping in,” he said. “I even bumped into Malcolm Jones, the book reviewer for Newsweek, and I asked him should I write this as memoir or as a novel. He said memoir, so that’s what I did.”

McCourt is very comfortable writing memoir. “A memoir is an impression of my life,” he said. “It captures the atmosphere, color and tone of what I experienced. An auto-biography captures the facts. I’ll let someone else write an auto-biography of me.”

‘Teacher Man’ does a nice job at capturing the essence of what it’s like to be a teacher in today’s high schools. The book is comic and tender at the same time, and McCourt never flinches from writing about the mistakes he made in the classroom like his first day, when he describes himself as one of the “greenest, least prepared and most intimidated teachers of all time.” On that first morning, in his first class, when a student threw a bologna sandwich, McCourt decided to pick it up and eat it.

“I learned pretty quickly that if I was going to survive as a teacher I needed to make a good connection with the kids,” he said.

He believes the best teachers have passion for their subject. “You’ve got to like kids and have vitality and energy,” he said.

McCourt, who taught in four different New York City public high schools, was willing to try just about anything to motivate his students from sing-a-longs featuring recipe ingredients as lyrics to having them write excuse notes from Adam or Eve to God. Some of his ongoing struggles as a teacher though were his many battles with principals and administrators.

“The best administrators are the ones who go about their job with humility,” said McCourt. “The administrators I liked to work for didn’t interfere with you. They let you teach.”

McCourt began teaching in 1958 and felt that his students didn’t change very much through the years even though the world continued to become a more complicated place. “When I first started teaching the big controversy was television,” he said, “and then it was rock music, but the biggest problem in the sixties was the war in Vietnam.”

If McCourt was teaching today he would be very concerned about the amount of cheating that students are doing because of the internet. He is also not happy with all the state and national testing our students are currently taking.

“Taking these tests destroys the atmosphere of the classroom,” said McCourt. “The teachers unions need to fight this issue and not give in. If we were forcing our college students to take these tests there would be an uproar.”

One of his major conflicts as a teacher was his desire to get beyond the classroom and be “out in the world.” At one point he even attempted a doctorate program at Trinity College in Dublin.

“But I kept returning to the classroom,” he said. “There were days as a teacher when I felt truly exalted from my students’ enthusiasm and laughter, and there were other days when I just staggered out of the school at the end of the day.”

Like many English teachers he always wanted to be a writer. “But teaching five classes a day and correcting hundreds of papers a week never inspired me to go home and write great prose,” he said.

It was only after he retired that he finally took the time to devote himself fully to his writing. “For years I had been scribbling in notebooks,” he said, “but after I retired I didn’t really know what to do. I was floundering, but something miraculous happened in 1994 the day when I sat down to write and those first one and a half pages of Angela’s Ashes just came pouring out. I had found my style, and I was off.”

He never dreamed the book would get published, and then to see it win the Pulitzer Prize was just beyond belief. “And they made a movie of it,” said McCourt. “That was strange to see my life on the screen, and to see my wife crying so much in the first twenty minutes. The movie was a noble effort even though they didn’t get it right all the time.”

McCourt is trying to enjoy this current book tour. “You never know what adventures you’ll have,” he said. He’s also looking forward to returning to Albany to see his good friend Bill Kennedy, whom he referred to as Mr. Albany. “I hope the people go easy on me,” he said.

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